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Media and communication studies has, historically, separated its object of study into three loose categories. Each informs the other, no approach treats them as distinct, but all theoretical approaches tend to privilege one over the other. These three approaches can be thought as institutions, texts, and audiences.

Institutional approaches might consider policy or political economy. It might be marxist or feminist, it might investigate the implications of regulation and ownership. It thinks about what you might think of as capital ‘M’ media, big mass media, and it uses approaches that more or less see the media as a type of institution, and so uses methods that help with that.

Textual approaches, which might be hermeneutic (what does this TV series mean?) through to post-something critical (a postfeminist critique of the latest BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) are interested in thinking about what media texts might mean. They might use content analysis (a week of TV will include 4,562 acts of violence, therefore…), sociology, politics, critical theory. They might consider a single show or song, or an entire institution (what does TV mean?), but the emphasis falls not on the surrounding institutions but on a specific bit of content.

Finally, audiences. This research, which often crosses or shares things with social science research, is interested in what audiences do with the media. It began with old school media effects research which tended to treat the media as a particular sort of institution that could, more or less, enforce, a world view upon an audience, through to more recent work that tends to recognise that audiences have more agency than this. Regardless of intent, method, and so on, this part of the research field sees or wants to consider reception, what happens at the receiving end, as the significant part of media and communication.

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What all these approaches share is that they can be thought to look past media as media and go straight to representation (what does it mean, how, why), and in that process not engage with, or consider, what or how the technical specificity of media (individually and possibly in general) is, and what the implications of that might be.

There are a small group of (increasingly) influential media theorists who are approaching ‘the media’ from a different point of view. For the sake of simplicity we will call this ‘materialist media studies’. These scholars, who are rather geeky, begin from the premise that there are technical attributes that matter, deeply, and that these inform/influence/effect what the media is, can be, might be, as much as any problems or questions of representation.

These theorists like to think about the media technically, but they treat the technical as made up of parts, and that these parts have influences. The more interesting theorists extend this same way of thinking about things to texts, institutions, and audiences. In this model the human (what, why, how we make and use media) is one part amongst the non human (electricity, signals, transistors, silicon chips, code, copper), and in more radical versions critiques traditional approaches for its anthropomorphism and, well, vanity (that it assumes we are at the centre of all).

Here things matter, things as things and not things as always and already defined by their use value or relation to the human. It recognises the complex, interconnected density of the world, and the difficulty (and artificiality) of our desire to comprehend this by separating it into discrete, separate parts.

The media objects lab begins from this question of density, of what makes up the media or communication problem we are investigating through our research through a process of critical thick description, to expand (and not simplify) what we think we are, and it, is.